The effect of supply chain shortages

Jude Harvey, Contributing Writer

Supply chain concerns have been driven to the front of American politics since the pandemic. With COVID-19 inducing layoffs, as well as causing ports to close, many retailers are struggling to keep products on their shelves. These supply chain issues have sparked a phenomenon that is only intensifying the problem. With a lack of supply, retailers are overordering products, only worsening the situation. One of the biggest issues facing American supply lines are the railroad companies, which transport materials all over the country. More specifically, North America’s largest railroad company, BNSF.

BNSF workers are on the brink of striking. A few months ago, the company adopted a new attendance system to ensure proper staffing during a period of low employment. This new system is at the heart of worker discontent. It works by giving rail workers a certain amount of points. These points are then deducted if work is missed, or a worker suddenly calls out. If a worker’s points fall too low, they can face penalties, or even be fired. 

Dennis Pierce, a rail union president, called it, “the worst and most egregious policy ever adopted by any rail carrier.” With this new policy, rail workers have lost points for not being at work due to being sick with COVID-19, suffering medical issues, or even going to a family funeral. The only way for a worker to increase their total number of points is by agreeing to be on call for 14 days straight. This unfair policy caused the rail workers to plan a strike in order to improve their conditions. A strike that would have happened if not for a last-minute meeting by President Biden, and other administration officials. 

This meeting resulted in a deal, which, according to The Washington Post, “includes a 24 percent pay increase by 2024- the largest for railroad workers in more than 4 decades – and new flexibility for workers to take time off when they are hospitalized or to attend routine doctor’s appointments without penalty.” However, some workers believe this deal is still not enough, as point-based attendance policies might still be utilized. Unless the railroad workers and their employers can come to an agreement, a strike is still entirely possible. A strike of this size would cripple US transport infrastructure, and further contribute to various supply chain issues.

Seeing the current struggle of retailers now, can give some insight into just how drastic the effects of this strike would be. Recent supply chain issues have had several other effects on retailers than just leaving shelves empty. Forbes found that “consumer prices are 5.4% higher than they were last year, close to a 30-year high in inflation.” So not only are specific items becoming harder to find, they are more expensive as well. Among these more expensive items are essential products such as gasoline, chicken, and diapers. Gasoline specifically is not more expensive due to limited quantity, but rather more supply chain issues, as there is a shortage of drivers to transport the fuel. Other, more obscure items such as semiconductors are becoming more expensive, and less available as well. Semiconductors are used in nearly everything containing electronics, from cars to phones. With America’s current dependence on electronics, a semiconductor shortage would affect hundreds of different industries. A strike of BNSF railroad workers would make these items even more expensive, and even less available.

While no consumer wants higher prices and fewer goods, the railroad workers of BNSF do deserve better working conditions. Due to the new attendance policy, over 700 BNSF workers have quit, only worsening the load for those still employed. One of these people still employed is Jordan Boone, a 41-year-old BNSF rail worker. Boone has stated that “The time away from family has a big impact on our mental health. I know people that have missed doctor’s appointments for months and months because of this policy.” While the effects of a strike will temporarily inconvenience consumers, it may be necessary to secure better working conditions for those that help keep this country running.